Though they started out perky five years ago, sales of Volkswagen’s nostalgic New Beetle predictably started slipping.
That’s no surprise in this era of automotive plenty, with manufacturers all over the world vying to identify and satisfy every hankering of a fickle automotive public.
It’s in stark contrast to the climate during the heyday of the original Beetle, when continuity was considered a virtue, and the Bug and a few other cars succeeded simply by changing little from year to year.
Because of its unique retro design, the New Beetle rides on the horn of a dilemma. Its styling can’t change too much or it will lose its special emotional appeal. At the same time, design longevity no longer is valued. So the Volkswagen people have had to devise other methods to maintain interest.
So far, they’ve done it by adding trendy colors and boosting power adding a turbo engine and then an even more powerful turbo in the New Beetle S.
Now they’ve taken another huge step with the debut of the 2003 New Beetle convertible, which replaces the boxy Cabrio droptop in the Volkswagen lineup.
Though it likely was foreordained, it took the VW folks five years to add the New Beetle convertible to the lineup. Given the anticipation whetted by customizers who chopped the tops off and made their own New Beetle convertibles, there’s no doubt it will be welcomed by Bug aficionados everywhere.
The VW marketers believe that starting in 2002 they will sell 30,000 a year 65 percent to women and that will bring the New Beetle back to its heady days of 80,000 sales a year.
They could even do better than that because the New Beetle convertible is a snazzy package, with few vices and a lot of the same tummy-tickling appeal of the original, which was last seen in 1979.
It’s a factory-built unit, with all the proper bracing in the body and chassis to prevent cowl shake, that dreaded wiggling of the steering wheel and superstructure that afflicts some convertibles on rough roads.
Moreover, like the original, it has one of those Germanic overdesigned soft tops full of insulation and padding to keep out noise and weather.
The New Beetle’s top fits so well there’s almost no wind noise at speed. The interior is cocoonlike in its isolation and comfort. It also follows the shape of the New Beetle sedan, so the car doesn’t look awkward with the top up.
Put the top down, however, and it doesn’t disappear under plastic panels in the manner of most modern convertibles. Instead, it perches up behind the rear seat somewhat like the tops on the Beetle convertibles of yore, but with a few important differences.
For one thing, you can actually see over the folded top through the rearview mirror, something that was problematical in the old car.
When the New Beetle convertible hits its stride, four models will be available, ranging in price from $21,000 to $26,100, with two engine choices: a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 115 horsepower and a 1.8-liter turbo four with 150 horsepower. There are no diesel or turbo S versions.
At $21,000, the base GL model looks to be the lowest-priced convertible available. Yet it comes with a decent level of equipment, including air conditioning, cruise control, a stereo with cassette player, side air bags, remote locking and an anti-theft system, anti-lock disc brakes and even lighted vanity mirrors.
However, the top must be manually raised and lowered, you have to sit on vinyl upholstery, you shift for yourself with a five-speed manual gearbox, and there are no fog lights or alloy wheels.
The test car was a midlevel GLS version, with a power-operated top and Volkswagen’s new six-speed automatic transmission with a Tiptronic manual-shift mode. Six-speeds are just coming into the market, and VW’s is the first in this price class. The test car also had the optional leather upholstery, a console-mounted CD changer and a wind-blocking screen over the rear seat.
The VW engineers took steps to shave some of the rough edges off the 115-horsepower engine. Internal balance shafts make it quieter and mostly vibration-free, and the engine works well with the easy-shifting automatic.
But there’s no surplus of power, and buyers who find it wimpy likely will choose to pay extra for the 1.8 turbo.
There’s also not a whole lot of space in the trunk, which has just 5 cubic feet of capacity compared with the hatchback New Beetle’s 12. But it’s big enough to handle the boot and the optional wind blocker, along with a few items of luggage.
Surprisingly, the New Beetle’s back seat can actually accommodate two adult humans, as long as they are of average to small stature and you move the two front seats forward a bit.